Mozambique: The Problem with Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) Designations

On March 10, the State Department announced the designation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC) as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) while also designating respective leaders of those organizations, Abu Yasir Hassan and Seka Musa Baluku, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs).

In the case of Mozambique, this decision is a response to the growing threat posed by Ahlu Sunna wa Jama (ASWJ), known as ISIS-Mozambique in U.S. government circles, which operates in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province. Violence escalated dramatically in 2020; the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) reported more than 570 violent attacks, including attacks in Tanzania. There have been widespread allegations of human rights abuses by ASWJ, Mozambican forces, and private military contractors (PMCs) operating at the behest of the Mozambican government. The violence has led to the displacement of over 670,000 people, caused major food shortages and market disruptions, and led to a pervasive sense of insecurity. Nearly 700,000 people in Cabo Delgado are in need of some form of basic assistance.

The designation, while a seemingly straightforward and measured policy response to ASWJ’s brutality and its international terrorist links, risks impeding humanitarian efforts and hobbling potential disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) activities. In addition, it is unlikely to significantly advance U.S. counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts. The implications of the designation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are outside the scope of this article.

Q1: What is ASWJ, and what is its link to the Islamic State?

A1: ASWJ, or al-Shabaab, as it is more commonly known in Mozambique, first emerged as an armed group in October 2017 when it attacked three police stations in Mocimboa da Praia to free detained members of their group. Academic research indicates the group likely evolved from a religious sect that first appeared in Cabo Delgado in 2007 and has probably gained steam during the past three and a half years by leveraging social and economic grievances among Muslim youth living along the coast. The government’s heavy-handed approach to the conflict exacerbated these preexisting tensions, further fueling recruitment for the insurgency. ASWJ leaders have been modest in their use of media to broadcast their message, but in the few instances of published videos or meetings with local communities, they regularly condemn the central government for its mistreatment of the poor, particularly Muslims.

Publicly available, reliable information on the exact nature of the relationship between ASWJ and the Islamic State is limited. ASWJ most likely makes its own operational and strategic decisions and does not act on orders from the Islamic State’s core. The target set and approach ASWJ has used to date is in line with its stated goal to remove the government; the group has consistently destroyed government buildings and infrastructure and has seized control of key roads and towns. The Islamic State and Islamic State Central Africa Providence (ISCAP) have periodically claimed credit for ASWJ operations through their media arms, but these claims at times lack specific detail and seem based on open-source information, suggesting communication between the groups may be irregular. ASWJ’s growing capacity and sophistication may reflect learning from the Islamic State—an interview of former Boko Haram fighters indicates the Islamic State provides training videos to its adherents—but the role of independent foreign fighters in advancing ASWJ’s skillset cannot be ruled out.

Q2: What is the impact of this designation on the counterinsurgency effort?

A2: Designating ASWJ as a foreign terrorist organization enables the U.S. government to freeze any assets the organization holds in financial institutions within the United States. It also prohibits U.S. persons from engaging in any transactions with the FTO and SDGTs and imposes immigration restrictions upon members of the organization. Academic studies suggest these designations are particularly effective when organizations are financed through charities and diaspora networks that are relatively easy to detect and isolate. Their effectiveness is reduced when organizations that primarily rely on criminal enterprises to finance their operations. Indeed, former director of national intelligence Jim Clapper has called FTO designations symbolic, recalling that he could not “think of a case where somehow that [designation] facilitated our ability to track them better.”

From what is currently understood about the group, ASWJ does not have assets in the United States, and its members are unlikely to travel to the United States. As a group that operates in coastal Mozambique, its connections to the United States are limited. The insurgents rely on looting supplies and profiting from the thriving illicit economy in the region, enabling them to evade monitoring of the designation’s enforcement mechanisms. In addition, the United States, through the Authorization of Military Force, could tap into existing authorities to develop tailored programs to counter the group’s operations and degrade its capabilities.

Finally, Maputo may view the designation as an affirmation of its narrative of an externally fomented conflict and may use it to validate the government’s emphasis on a military response to the insurgency. Mozambican officials last year started to stress the conflict’s external dimension, presumably seeking to deflect any blame for the region’s disaffection and mismanaging of the security response. A continued focus on a military campaign at the expense of social and economic programs to foster greater development and stability will likely prolong the conflict; a RAND study of post-World War II insurgencies shows that governments that rely on a heavy-handed approach have typically fared worse than those that employ a mixed approach to a conflict.

Q3: What is the impact of this designation on humanitarian aid efforts?

A3: The FTO and SDGT designations will increase the complexity of the humanitarian response. Moreover, there are already significant logistical and bureaucratic impediments, as well as pervasive insecurity, hampering the current effort.

  • Logistic Hurdles: Road access for humanitarian cargo in Cabo Delgado is limited due to poor infrastructure and climactic factors. Seasonal rains, along with the destructive impacts of a series of cyclones, have limited road transport options, making coordinated and effective response in the region complicated and expensive.

  • Bureaucratic Challenges: Humanitarian workers struggle with bureaucratic red tape. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs describes these as significant impediments on humanitarian efforts, with three-month delays in the approvals of visas and the customs clearance for emergency supplies taking upward of two months.

  • Security Concerns: In addition to ASWJ, humanitarian actors must navigate Mozambican forces and related PMCs, such as the Dyk Advisory Group (DAG). Humanitarian organizations have raised concerns about the inability to engage effectively with all parties to ensure safe passage for humanitarian goods and personnel.

FTO and SDGT designations almost certainly will add further challenges, including by restricting the ability of humanitarian aid organizations to engage in essential dialogue with armed groups to receive security assurances. While nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are not prohibited from speaking with designated groups, the broad definitions of material support create a legally challenging framework in which to carry out such dialogue. The “knowing” standard in the law compels organizations to carry out potentially dangerous vetting procedures, exposing them to physical risk if they are perceived to be working on behalf of states or governments deemed hostile to the designated groups. The ability of groups such as ASWJ to integrate into the civilian population also creates a legal gray area for NGOs to navigate in carrying out essential services. FTO and SDGT designations have elsewhere resulted in restrictions on access to financial services, as financial institutions are increasingly risk-averse to providing services in contexts with the presence of FTO and SDGTs.

The Biden administration should consider revoking this designation or at least immediately issue waivers or general licenses for humanitarian assistances. While U.S. policymakers may have assessed that a designation would have a limited impact in Cabo Delgado, where there is a small presence of international humanitarian organizations, ASWJ’s growing area of operations suggests that the designation could eventually pose problems. In the case of Yemen, the Biden administration revoked a similar designation at the behest of concerted efforts by the humanitarian community. Notably, in Yemen, the designation included general licenses for humanitarian organizations to carry out their work. This week’s announcement, however, has not yet been supplemented by clear guidance for organizations currently working—or hoping to work—in Cabo Delgado. It is imperative to address this shortcoming.

Q4: How does this designation impact regional efforts at managing this crisis?

A4: The FTO and SDGT designations also may hamper future international, regional, and Mozambican efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict. In addition to the United States, several of Mozambique’s external partners and neighbors are working to curb the insurgency. The U.S. designation has the potential to force their hands, retooling their engagement activities and issuing their own terrorist proscriptions. It may also prompt President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique to reconsider his recent olive branch to the group when he dangled amnesty to individuals who break ties with ASWJ.

The designation also could complicate U.S. efforts to support eventual DDR activities in Mozambique. An FTO is not a showstopper, but it does impose additional steps. It is challenging to engage in most forms of communication or engagement with a listed FTO, even as part of peace processes or DDR programs. The secretary of state, therefore, is required to consult with the relevant congressional committees on appropriations prior to obligating any funds for these activities. In the case of Nigeria, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Embassy secured permission from Congress to use an appropriations rule enabling them to help the Nigerian military develop a DDR framework. However, as Saskia Brechenmacher explained in a 2019 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, the process was lengthy, and it was difficult for the United States to provide direct support because “assistance required time-consuming interagency coordination and vetting.”

Emilia Columbo is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at CSIS. Jacob Kurtzer is director of and a senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont